Posted by Guest on March 22, 2017 in Blog

By Sam Leathley

The film Faithkeepers: Be your brother’s keeper shows that the right story, told the wrong way, can be dangerous. Funded by the Clarion Project and the Philos project, the film explores violence towards Yazidis and Christians in the Middle East. On March 22, it was shown in an advance screening on Capitol Hill.

The film’s opening speakers included International Religious Freedom Caucus co-chair Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), caucus member Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, (R-NE), and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA). In their introductions, the congressmen highlighted the violence Christians endure under ISIS. Congressman Fortenberry told the harrowing story of Nadeya, a Yazidi woman enslaved by ISIS. In his introduction, Congressman Franks declared nobly that “when those who are able don’t stand up for the innocent against the malevolent, humanity is lost.”

Imbued as it is with this noble sense of duty, Faithkeepers’ message initially feels incontrovertible. Yet the screening imparted two less-than-noble impressions: that Muslims are uniquely prone to violence, and that since Christians are “just like us”—civilized—Americans’ must ally with them in the ‘clash of civilizations’ that the film portrays. But let’s rewind for a moment. 

It goes without saying that the stories of Christians and other minorities must be shared. But although Faithkeepers notes ISIS’ hatred of Shia Muslims, the film blurs the lines between violent, ‘radical’ Muslims and average Muslims by failing to contextualize its interviewees assertions. As interviewees recounted their traumas, often using ‘Muslims’ to broadly designate their attackers, Islam was painted as a behemoth. While the interviewees’ somewhat one-sided views of Muslims clearly resulted from their painful experiences, Faithkeepers fails to provide an insightful or nuanced narrative to complicate these views. Appallingly, the narrator appeared wholly unconcerned with interrogative questions that could have explained the forces that shaped the region and allowed for the rise of ISIS. Faithkeepers’ reliance on interviews, sans contextual analysis or skilled commentary, allowed the victims’ barbarous image of Muslims to be repeated as fact.

The panel speakers expanded Faithkeepers’ facile depiction of Muslims into a racialized clash of civilizations narrative. In ill-contrived comments following the film, former congressman Frank Wolf declared that “[Middle Eastern Christians] have small, ‘quality’ families…they had businesses, they were professionals…the children had iPads…these people lived exactly like us.” Panel speaker and Kairos Company president Johnnie Moore gushed that the film’s ‘genius’ was that it “let a child with light hair and light eyes just…tell their story,” adding bizarrely that “then you realize where they came from, and they shouldn’t have had to experience that.” Though Wolf and Moore’s comments were justifiably intended to rectify many Americans’ notions that Middle Eastern Christians “live in huts” or “look” Muslim, their statements reinforced "War on Terror" narratives that stake Christianity against Islam. Juxtaposed with Congressman Fortenberry’s comments that “all of you [the audience], in your individual ways, are working so diligently on stopping this assault on the principles of civilization,” the panel members’ statements channeled an omnipresent worldview that links Christianity to civilization, and civilization to whiteness. 

Faithkeepers’ employed a shoddy history of anti-Christian violence that relied on fears of encroaching Islamic violence to back this clash of civilizations narrative. Essential informative concepts, such as imperialism or Arab nationalism, were eschewed from the outset in favor of this base framing; even Faithkeepers’ trailer injudiciously cites “Muslim mobs” as an explanation of anti-Christian violence. In its coverage of the imprisonment of Coptic Christians in the 1970s and 80s, the fact that Muslims were also imprisoned was omitted entirely. To bookend its shaky narrative, Faithkeepers cited the November 2015 Paris attacks as indicative of a legacy of Muslim-Christian hostility. This fast-and-loose historicism deeply undermined Faithkeepers’ credibility. 

The creators’ slapdash approach was further demonstrated by the film’s producer during the discussion panel: when asked about the specific role of British and French imperial administrations in generating Christian-Muslim conflict, Paula Kweskin merely provided a rote summary of the Arab states’ formation, blithely stating that while imperialist-drawn borders had been damaging, the film sought to “look forward.”

It is hard to “look forward” when the screening channeled the racism and anti-Muslim bigotry that continues to plague American culture. The clash of civilizations framework, including the idea that those who look and live like us are particularly deserving of empathy, has chilling consequences in a political climate where, following Trump’s election, society is swamped with racist dog-whistles and bigotry towards refugees (46 percent of whom are Muslim). This bigotry is more than rhetorical: the FBI reports that hate crimes against Muslims have risen 67%.  

In Iraq and Syria, two countries Faithkeepers highlightsTrump has already worsened violence against Muslim civilians in a grisly attempt to fulfill his promise to “bomb the sh*t out of ISIS”. Clearly, the conflation of ISIS with average Syrian and Iraqi Muslims is a fatal mistake. 

The stories of Christians in the Middle East are worth telling—but we cannot fall back upon racist and Islamophobic assumptions to tell them. Because as Faithkeepers debuts these assumptions on screens across the United States, Muslims, whose history and faith is intertwined with Christianity, will still be targeted by bigoted violence at home and abroad—as will the Arab Christians the film purports to protect. In this context, the film’s titular refrain—Be your brother’s keeper—rings hollow.

Sam Leathley is a Spring 2017 Intern at the Arab American Institute.